Thursday, September 17, 2009

What Makes Austin Unique?

Reposted from ATX Equation

It has been almost a year since the ATXequation conversation began. Taking this moment to reflect on the frequently asked questions we get these days as the word begins to spread. Mostly "What are you doing exactly?" and "Why?"

We continue to explore our original question - what makes Austin special? We're intrigued by the many different discussions this one question prompts - and even more interested in the common thread woven across those answers. ATXequation was borne out of a desire to test the strength of that thread and witness the pattern of the fabric it weaves.

So we've been asking the question and sharing the various answers -- and our hypothesis on their commonalities. For example, we believe that Austin's uniquely-designed experiences and our rich, diverse communities combine to create lasting and powerful "scenes" that make Austin the thriving, vibrant city it is. Some say those scenes have just sprung up organically over time, that there is no method or science to how they've generated themselves. We think that scene-making can be deconstructed to inform those of us who want to continue Austin's legacy of being the best place to live. We think the "how" is important for those Austinites (and others) who are investing themselves now, or will invest themselves as future stewards of our city. Stewards who understand that a strength like Austin's isn't about happenstance, but a unique and special combination that -- like any good recipe -- is improved with each chef that attempts it, but always begins with a set of key ingredients. Thus, the equation: Experience + Community = Scene.

We've been evangelizing about Austin, because that's what we're good at. And people like to talk about it. Spreading the word about how to "make a scene" means encouraging people to elevate their thinking from an isolated, individual or singular community perspective to the scene mentality -- a mindset that means looking across a set of related communities to find what they have in common, and what they don't. By doing this, we can create quicker synergy, collaboration and results for the city we care about so deeply. Since we began, more than a dozen "scene mappers" have stepped up to document the many communities that make up Austin's scenes: music, arts, technology, entrepreneurship, non-profit and many other scenes are literally being mapped to reveal the connecting points, and places of disconnect. Because the mappers hope that by drawing the dots they'll learn more about how to connect them into a stronger scene. One that is aware of itself as such and sees the power and value in the collective. So far, the "ahas" of the scene mapping process have been many. "Oh really, you're doing that too?" "Why didn't we know about each other sooner!"

So we've been leading the mapping, and we've been talking. Alot. With individuals at first, and now more with groups. I think the first in December '08 was for about 15 people in the backroom at Marie Calendars. Today was more than 90 at the AT&T conference center. Group size keeps growing, and the invitations keep coming. Feedback we receive is that people are intrigued by the equation. Because there is something in the language of scene-building that gives voice to that which they already knew, but weren't sure how to articulate. That in the endeavor of understanding the special nature of our town they feel connected to something larger than themselves. Something they've wanted to be a part of, but just weren't sure how. And so far each audience, no matter how varied, seems to have a way to connect the concepts to their own activities or needs. It's a portable, universal model which Bijoy will tell you is the best kind. What matters most to me is that people are finding meaning and value in the conversation. And so it continues.

To what end is all of this? Who knows. Perhaps it's best there not be an end, but a constant exploration of the creativity and inclusivity that makes Austin Austin. We can't bottle such a process, but we may be able to distill it's essence just enough for Austinites everywhere and maybe even those outside our fair town to take a sip and not only enjoy, but understand, and begin to share the formula.

The starting QUEST(ion), "What makes Austin special?" has morphed into the real question: how do we steward Austin on its journey? Ours was an impulse of stewardship for the city and our real intent is that you take on the office for yourself. It's up to you to be a steward for Austin in whatever way you can imagine - whether that's within or outside of the Atxequation initiative itself. Our job is to lay the groundwork with the model - the "real work" of stewardship is up to you!

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